Yadier Molina began his 15th season with the St. Louis Cardinals last week, starting his 14th consecutive Opening Day on March 29. And although his teammate, Adam Wainwright, is the Cardinals’ active franchise leader in Wins Above Replacement, the go-to all-encompassing sabermetric stat du jour, it is Molina who is the team’s most iconic current player.
Nothing against Wainwright, whose place in Cardinals history certainly exceeds the place in history of numerous other current “franchise players”, but Molina (who trailed Wainwright in career WAR by a minuscule 1 WAR) has a few distinct advantages over Wainwright for the title:
- Molina was drafted and developed by the Cardinals, and while Wainwright spending his entire MLB career in St. Louis helps, Molina gets the edge.
- Molina has been an overwhelming fan favorite since becoming a Cardinal, while Wainwright had to wait until Chris Carpenter’s retirement to truly inherit the mantle of most popular Cardinals pitcher.
- WAR (all references to which in this article past and present are in reference to the Baseball Reference version, unless noted otherwise) does not incorporate some of the more cutting-edge versions of catcher defense. While Wainwright has slight edges by Baseball Reference and FanGraphs WAR, Molina leads in Baseball Prospectus WARP (which heavily factors pitch framing in its measurements) by over fifteen wins, a far more substantial margin.
But where does the iconic Cardinals catcher stack among the current “franchise players”? I decided to take the thirty players who could most accurately be labeled the current franchise player, consider three different metrics, assigned somewhat arbitrary weights to these metrics, and then move a few players up or down depending on more intangible factors. Feel free to disagree with my rankings and my methodology. But here were those three metrics.
- Franchise tenure: This one is very simple—how much MLB service time has the player accumulated with his team? Spending a decade-plus with the same franchise is going to build goodwill with that team.
- WAR with franchise: It isn’t a perfect stat but it is a singular one which generally reflects a player’s perception. And, of course, “with franchise” is an important disclaimer, hence the absence of Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, or Albert Pujols from this list.
- Franchise WAR rank: This one gives a somewhat unfair advantage to players from newer franchises, but it also makes sense in that it’s going to be easier to be an iconic Miami Marlin than an iconic New York Yankee. Aaron Judge (who isn’t on this list but certainly could be at some point) is almost certainly not going to surpass Babe Ruth nor Lou Gehrig in career WAR, but it wouldn’t be outlandish to speculate that he could pass the mark of Giancarlo Stanton.
30. Marcus Semien, Oakland Athletics: With three seasons of MLB service time (tied for lowest on this list), a list-low 6.9 WAR, and a (say it with me this time) list-low 151st rank on his franchise’s WAR list, this is an easy choice for last place. Also, he began his career with the Chicago White Sox.
29. Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies have a long history and a severe shortage of even moderately tenured players, but Herrera has been one of the few bright spots in the rapid decline phase (which may soon be over) of the Phillies.
28. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins: The Marlins catcher has been very good and is almost certainly the most dynamic player on the current, depleted Marlins roster. But at just 8.7 WAR and with only three seasons of service time under his belt, Realmuto only gets this high on the list because he ranks a respectable 24th in franchise WAR because, well, Marlins.
27. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox: The bottom four on this list are pretty easily the bottom four because the franchises have been selling off their established players, but Abreu is the best of the bottom tier because at 17 WAR, he has been the best thing about the White Sox franchise since joining it with the exceptions of former pitchers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
26. Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates: Marte has been underrated partially because of sharing an outfield with now-Giant Andrew McCutchen, but despite a PED suspension last season, the not-exactly-old Marte (29) is the 42nd best player in the storied history of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
25. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays: He’s only in his fourth season in Toronto, and he’s probably not going to be around beyond this season, but the 2015 AL MVP Donaldson is the 18th best player in franchise history by WAR. He ranked below Marte in my arbitrary formula but Donaldson gets a bump for having actually been the franchise’s best player during his tenure.
24. Chase Headley, San Diego Padres: He gets knocked down a few spots because his Padres heroism came in his first run with the franchise, but Headley ranks 10th in franchise WAR, which seems impossible until you remember that the non-Tony Gwynn parts of the franchise’s history are frankly hilarious (here’s to Padres all-time home run leader Nate Colbert).
23. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: It seems that Francisco Lindor will eventually be this guy, but for now, it is the two-time Cy Young winner. Klubot ranks just 33rd in Indians history in WAR, a mark which is much more respectable when considering the long history of the franchise, and he loses some cache for his poor start in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, but his overall ability keeps him out of the lower reaches of the list.
22. Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays: A lack of franchise history helps Kiermaier substantially, as the center fielder ranks fourth in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays. Also, because it is the Rays, and because Kiermaier is very good, he also might get traded soon.
21. Brett Gardner, New York Yankees: For most franchises, a player who has been around for nearly a decade and has been worth 34.8 WAR would rank higher, but the long-time Yankee ranks just 34th in franchise history in WAR (for reference, he’d rank just 0.4 WAR behind first place for the Marlins). A case could also be made for CC Sabathia as the Yankees icon, as he is the more famous of the two, but either would probably rank around the same spot on this list.
20. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs: Rizzo ranks 40th in Cubs WAR, easily worse than any player ahead of him, but Rizzo’s role in breaking a 108-season World Series drought meant I had to give him some boost, despite not becoming a regular starter until 2013 (or, as it is known in the modern run of the Chicago Cubs, ancient history).
19. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves: The remaining player from their last run of success, the underrated first baseman is helped by being the most notable attraction on the team.
18. Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles: A case could be made for Manny Machado in this spot, but the decade-long Orioles center fielder, while not as great on a rate basis, ranks 18th in the history of a franchise which dates back to the St. Louis Browns and was a popular part of a shift from a lackluster afterthought to one of the AL’s most consistently competitive teams.
17. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies: He ranks 4th, and while, yes, it’s a newer franchise that hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful, the three names ahead of him are pretty notable (Todd Helton, Larry Walker, Troy Tulowitzki) and the slick-fielding third baseman is overwhelmingly popular among Rockies fans who yell at me on Twitter whenever I say Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson are better.
16. Jose Altuve, Houston Astros: He hasn’t played long enough to reach the upper tier of this list, but as the fan-favorite AL MVP of the first World Series-winning team in franchise history, Altuve is firmly within the middle of the pack of this list. Especially after signing a five-year extension before the season, Altuve is a strong candidate to rise to the top of this list in the coming decade.
15. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks: He is already the greatest position player in franchise history and the first baseman is about as quiet of a super-duper-star as one can be while finishing three times in the top three in MVP voting. He has surprisingly little tenure for the upper reaches of this list—only one player who ranks higher than Goldschmidt has as little service time.
14. Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: His window as a great player was brief, and since signing an extension Gordon has been very disappointing, but the Royals left fielder, who made his MLB debut with the franchise in 2007, ranks eighth in franchise WAR, easily tops in the 21st century, and unlike the departed Eric Hosmer or Lorenzo Cain, or to a lesser extent Mike Moustakas, the Royals locked up Alex Gordon to be the face of the franchise.
13. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers: He was a few days away from his 32nd birthday when he debuted with the Rangers, which hurts his case, but the timeless third baseman still ranks third in franchise history in WAR and could very realistically move to second by the end of 2018. He is in only his eighth season in Texas and he has ingrained himself so thoroughly in franchise lore that I refuse to believe he didn’t play on the 2010 AL champion team.
12. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants: As with Molina, WAR is probably underrating Posey’s contributions to the Giants, so while he ranks 15th by my formula, the combination of his excellence and three World Series rings made me inclined to rank him higher, and made me consider ranking him even higher than I did.
11. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals: Although now obscured by Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg (and Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner, and...this is a really good team), Zimmerman has a unique point in his favor—he played for the original Washington Nationals, debuting in the first season that the former Montreal Expos played in the nation’s capital. Zimmerman is tops among Nationals players in WAR (ranking sixth in the franchise as a whole) and the symmetry of his tenure coinciding with the franchise’s relocation gives him some bonus points.
10. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers: Yes, he started with the Marlins. But when you spend a decade in one city, co-owning a highly successful run with the now-departed Justin Verlander, and win the first Triple Crown (yes, I think two-thirds of Triple Crown stats are fundamentally flawed, but this was an enormous deal) since Carl Yastrzemski, it matters less. Also he’s under contract through at least 2023.
9. Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox: David Ortiz was the king of Boston and the relatively underrated second baseman was often lost in the shuffle, but Pedroia has been around for over a decade, won an MVP award, and ranks tenth in the storied history of the Boston Red Sox in WAR. Numbers 11 and 12, Bobby Doerr and Jim Rice, were also lifelong Red Sox who eventually made it to Cooperstown.
8. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals: He ranked 12th by my formula. I can see the case for several players behind him to be ahead of him but I can also see the case for Molina to rank in the top five. I can also see the case for him at #1 (not objectively, but just because this is an arbitrary list and trolling Yadi’s numerous nonbelievers is fun).
7. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers: He has gone through stages of being a superstar and stages of being a somewhat ordinary player, but only Robin Yount and Paul Molitor out-WAR him on the all-time Brewers list, and while Braun is not especially popular nationally, he is a realistic candidate to have his number retired.
6. David Wright, New York Mets: He loses points because he pushes the boundaries of “active”, as he has not played since May 2016. But Wright, who remains on the Disabled List, is the second-greatest Mets player in history (behind Tom Seaver) and has been through quite the run of highs and lows with the Mets. His first career game included Ty Wigginton playing first base and batting third, and Todd Zeile pinch-hit. He’s been around a while.
5. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds: The following players rank ahead of Votto on the Reds’ WAR leaderboard: Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Frank Robinson, and Joe Morgan. Votto is next. He still has a vocal minority of haters who dislike his nonchalance and/or do not appreciate his best-of-his-generation batter’s eye, but the superstar first baseman is easily the best player on a rebuilding Reds team.
4. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels: Only one player leads his active franchise in WAR, and that player is the 26 year-old Best Player In Baseball Mike Trout. With just over six years of service time, Trout is a relative neophyte for this list, much less for the upper levels of it, but it’s hard to pass on a franchise’s all-time icon on a list of current franchise icons.
3. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners: There is absolutely a case for Suzuki at #1, and had his time in Seattle not been interrupted by stints with the Yankees and Marlins, he might be. There is also a strong case for Felix Hernandez as the Mariners franchise player, and he would easily be in the top ten if the Mariners hadn’t acquired Ichiro towards the end of Spring Training. But the man who ranks third in franchise WAR history and was extremely popular with fans, particularly coming off the heels of the departures of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, was extraordinarily well-liked to a degree that few players of his era are.
2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers: Kershaw, who turned 30 last month, is already the all-time leader in WAR accumulated in Los Angeles, and with a 6.6 WAR season (a mark he has exceed four times in his career), the Dodgers ace would pass Don Drysdale to become the all-time leader in WAR for the storied franchise. There is a tendency to degrade Kershaw for what he isn’t—those who say he isn’t as good as Sandy Koufax or that he isn’t as good as Pedro Martinez—but Clayton Kershaw is a truly all-time special great pitcher.
1. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins: Perhaps a surprising pick at first glance, but Mauer really covers all of the angles. He ranks 4th in franchise WAR, though when limiting it to Minnesota (unlike the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Washington Senators are rarely mentioned when discussing the Twins franchise), he trails only Rod Carew. Mauer was a first overall draft pick who is a St. Paul, MN native; as a high schooler, he was also National Player of the Year as a quarterback and was a two-time All-State basketball player. Mauer was drafted at arguably the nadir of the Twins franchise—following the season in which he was drafted, rumors circulated that MLB was considering contracting the Twins—and the hometown hero has led the Twins to four postseason berths and won three Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves as a catcher. While his transition to first base and lucrative contract have sullied his value and perception a bit, Mauer is a potential Hall of Famer for his hometown team and his legacy is firmly intact.